viernes, 22 de febrero de 2008

Fast Times in The Switzerland of the Americas

Ok – so I admit it, I’ve been terrible at keeping up with this blog lately. Two months in Uruguay and nothing. For all you dedicated readers, if you exist, my bad.

Currently I’m living in Montevideo, Uruguay researching candombe, percussion-battery music that dominates Carnival here, which as Uruguayans love to point out, is not the biggest Carnival in the world, but the longest. Living in Uruguay is quite a change of pace from the last bunch of countries I’ve been in. Nicknamed “The Switzerland of the Americas,” Uruguay is unusual for Latin America for being economically and politically stable for most of its history, It’s the only country in Latin America that has no official religion – Easter Week is renamed Vacation Week and Christmas is Family Day. Uruguay also has the distinction of having completely killed off the indigenous populations who once lived here, so unlike Argentina which basically tries to pretend that a large mestizo population simply does not exist, Uruguayans are almost entirely the descendents of European immigrants: Italians, Spaniards, Jews, Russians, etc.

I’ve come up with a list of criteria for how I know I’m living in a pretty developed country. If you live in a country where people voluntarily leave their homes and sleep in a tent for vacation, you ain’t too third-world. When there are meters in your taxis, hot water in every apartment, and an Urban Outfitters in your city, and more art cinemas that you can count on one hand, you ain’t too third world. My hippie friends hate to lose their developing world credibility, but I have to say, my life here in Montevideo is not to different from my New York life, in a lot of ways.

This of course isn’t the whole story – there are glaring inequalities, and despite a large middle class, a huge wealth gap. There are shanties on the edges of every city, leading to the growth of a vaguely criminal and very visible sub-culture of planchas, who can be found in all parts of Montevideo intimidating people into giving them money and cigarettes. This is how you recognize a plancha: skinny dudes with Nike baseball caps tilted upwards, Nike sneakers, soccer jerseys, capri jeans going to their ankles, bling in one ear, and brilliant bright dyed blonde hair. Especially where I live, I got accosted constantly by such people, but they never really seem to be dangerous, and besides, I can’t feel too intimidated by gangsters who kiss each other hello.

Right now I’m living in Ciudad Vieja, the historic old city that is filled with tourists and bankers during the day and stalked by junkies by night. It’s a strange, bipolar and melancholic neighborhood, and there is a lovely sort of loneliness watching the cargo ships get loaded up by rusty old dinosaur cranes every night and head off into sea. I’m sharing an apartment with a diverse crowd: an Iranian quantum physicist, a Mexican fashion student, a Dutch biomedical engineer, and an Uruguayan acupuncturist. My first month however, I spent couch hopping in various apartments of friends of friends (all leading back to my Argentine host-family) until it seemed inevitable that I should find a permanent place to settle in. One such house was shared by Uruguayan blugrass-indie-rock musicians, funk aficionados, and a socialogist who founded Uruguay’s Marijuana Liberation Party. (Go to and to see the websites of the bands I was living with). It was an absurd place, and my housemates were very amused to learn from me that they were perfect specimens of hipsterism. Theres no word for it here yet, but hipsterism is incredibly alive here in Uruguay – bicycling tight-pantsed, pink wearing, gigantic sunglass-toting, armchair philosophizing hedonists who live in former ghettoes are everywhere.

My first week here I had my first taste of hostel living with the international-South American-backpacker crowd. Montevideo tends to be a one-day stopover for people on their way from Buenos Aires to the famed beaches of Uruguay, such as super-luxurious Punta del Este, where as everybody knows, Shakira summers. As such, the hostel was re-populated by another 60 people every night, ranging from Brazilian backpackers to large groups of Australians who would get funnel beers and piss in the plants. (As a side note – I find it funny that of all the people I’ve met on the road, its rarely the Americans who are the biggest assholes, though I still find most people amazed that I am not an ignorant war-loving capitalist). There was something both fun and maddening about telling my life story to 60 new people every night, but the worst part was being suddenly surrounded by the one-upsmanish of travllelers, who tout their travel experiences as unique badges of hardcoreness and passive-aggressibly criticize everyone else in order to protect themselves from realizing that other people share those experiences. I found myself completely guilty of this myself, and decided I needed to get out of there as fast as possible to not become that asshole.

Uruguayans are mostly chill folk, but if there’s something they get riled up about, its not being Argentina. Argentines, on the other hand, casually all joke that Uruguay is just a province of Argentina. After all, there are just 3 million people in this little country (that’s less than the population of Brooklyn), and they share mate, tango, good meat and Italian last names with their big Argentine cousins. The one-sided rivalry (something like the Boston-New York baseball rivalry) has heated up because of a bunch of paper mills Uruguay put up that Argentines claim will pollute touristic parts of their river, and there are protests and harsh words being exchanged on this silly topic all the time. I have to say though, that after living here, I have to agree that Uruguayans have their own thing going on – the culture is just more chill, maybe because of all that beautiful beach, and Brazilian music and culture has a big impact here. Cumbia and other Latin Music is popular here, if not as popular as rock nacional, and people front just a little less. I think I’m being converted, despite my love for Argentina.

But none of this has anything to do with why I’m here – which is Carnival, the central event of the year for millions of Uruguayans (the other million can’t stand it). For those used to seeing pictures of Brazilian Carnival with their scantily glad samba dancers and mad tropical fornication in the streets, you will have been misled. As one might expect, Uruguayan carnival is more, well, relaxed. The month focuses on competitions and performances by groups in various categories, but the most important are murga and candombe. Stages, or tablados, are set up all over the city ranging from rickety barrio productions to corporate-sponsored arenas, and local street-parades in various neighborhoods go on every day. This all prepares for the competitive event, nightly performances in a huge open-air amphitheatre called Teatro de Verano, where groups get one hour to show what they got. (To former Stuyvesant students – think a large scale Sing!, because that’s really what its like.)

Murga is a weird but great Spanish-decended type of comic opera, in which 15 dudes dressed in ridiculous medival-looking costumes sing political commentary in crazy four-part harmonies to a battery of bass drum, snare, and cymbals. Strange as it is, this is immensily popular here, espcially among the lower-classes. I guess I was kind of skeptical the first time I went to see one, but its actually incredible. Even understanding only around 15% of what they sing, its hilarious, and the harmonies are really amazing. This has led to Uruguayan music in general to be really on top of vocal harmonizing. Here’s a clip.

On the other side of the spectrum, is Candombe. Coming from the relatively small afro-Uruguayan minority, the drums of candombe have exploded into the top symbol of national culture, with kids from every race and social class enthuiastically picking of drums and marching through the streets during Carnival time. The biggest event of Carnival is really Las Llamadas, a two-day parade in which 30 plus candombe groups thunder down a narrow cobbled street in the old decaying Afro-Uruguayan neighborhood, and its immense. If I wrote about it now, this blog post will never end, so I’ll have to continue at a later time. Heres a taste of what a candombe comparsa looks like, however:

jueves, 7 de febrero de 2008

Till Now: Hippie Pirate Islands, Broken Heads, and Other Tales

Coming back from the jungle, I was officially on vacation. Well unofficially. But with visits from Irina, the family, and Lynas in row, I had a basically a month for not being by myself in the middle of nowhere, and yes, I know that a vacation from what is essentially a year-long paid vacation sounds decadent, and I have nothing to say about that.

Irina and me decided to go check out Utila, one of the famous Bay Islands of Honduras lying jewel-like off the Caribbean coast, and Honduras’ top tourist draw mostly for what is know as the cheapest scuba certification in the world. Of the three islands, Utila is known as the dirty-hippie-backpacker island, and the best place in the world to see the whale shark, which is a very very big fish. We thought this was a great combo.

Arriving in Utila Town from La Ceiba, Honduras is similar to the experience of arriving to another planet, I imagine. Getting off the boat on the little dock cluttered with cinder blocks and other flotsam, we were immediately accosted by a chorus line of 30 or so be-dreaded and bearded hippies aggressively pushing their dive shop in various languages, which we avoided nimbly, only to find ourselves in a very strange place, a seaside English village a surreal dream. Utila is definitely a unique place. The “locals,” both black and white, are the descendants of English pirates who marauded the Central American coast and immigrants from nearby Cayman Islands, and speak the world’s strangest English, a sort of salty, crackheaded Irish accent mixed with Jamaican English, that is almost completely unintelligible. Most are crew-cutted, tatted-up, wifebeater-wearing sorts, with a sort of inbred-looking flair among the white islanders especially. The town has one road stretching along the coast, dotted with English-style homes in various states of disrepair, ramshackle seafood eateries, crunchy Oregon-style cafes with Wesleyan-worthy vegan menus, traveler-friendly bars. The islanders, once living on this bizarre island in relative obscurity, now share the island with adventure-sport-type hippies who bartend and work at dive shops, salty old sea captains of various nationalities who drink beer and play horseshoes all day, and enterprising Hondurans attracted by the thriving economy.

Transportation on Utila is a fascinating concept. There are virtually no cars on the island, yet the narrow paved road is usually jammed with a combination of ATVs, motorcycles, golf-carts (I shit you not), pedestrians, bicycles, scraggly dogs. We once, on foot, were stuck in such a traffic jam actually unable to move. By nightfall, the famous Utila nightlife comes alive, in what is really a vaguely post-apocalyptic display of firecrackers, roadside barbeques, ATVs and motorcycles zipping past at Roadwarrior-worthy speeds, and country music. I noticed the country phenomenon in La Ceiba, but its serious here, with Nashville ballads blasting out of all the islander clubs, legend has it because the fishermen back in the day could only pick up Alabaman gulf coast radio on their boats when out at sea. The traveler scene, on the other hand, follows a strict schedule of starting out drinking in a swanky bar built into a treetop, and then to the oceanside bar-clubs. We went to a party on the beach, where there was techno and fire-jugglers. The concept of a place where you could walk around at night in Honduras was amazing. I never really left the house after 5pm in Ceiba, those back-pocket pistols being kind of a deterrent.

We stayed in what might be, and I risk exaggeration, the most zany hotel in the universe – a nearly indescribable complex called Nightland of walkways, tunnels, catwalks, overhangs, gazebos, cabins, all covered in colorful class bead sculptures and kitschy plastic toys, a sort of slightly more sinister Dr. Seuss universe. This is all the personal vision of a vaguely autistic Californian artist who reigns over his acid-inspired kingdom, spawning a slew of mixed-race Jewish hippie island children.

Then it rained. After all this is Honduras, and it rained and oh it rained, kind of forestalling further adventuring plans to other islands, but really this only became a problem on the day we tried to leave, in which on arriving at the port it was announced to a group of angry travelers that the port was closed, and there were no boats leaving the island for days. This led to a Lost-like dilemma of “we have to get off the island!”, in which people were frantically calling to charter planes, boats or anything they could to catch their flights out of Honduras. Together with some Israeli girls we considered leaving with island dude who insisted he could make it in his little boat, which seemed sketchy to us because he was a crew-cuted, tatted-up, wifebeater-wearing dude on a motorcycle, and decided not to risk it in the end. (We later saw said dude, who turned back after 15 minutes because the seas were too rough). Luckily, the port opened up in the afternoon and we managed to make it home, but it was dramatic for a while.

Then began my journey to Buenos Aires - it essentially started with hitchhiking down a jungle mountain near la Ceiba with Irina and an old dude with a machete, and ended in posh, fondue-restaurant laden Bariloche, Argentina. Which is quite a contrast. Inbetween, there was a brief and awkward drama with Aurelio’s son who may-or-may-not have tried to steal my iPod, many buses. Then the Miami airport, with the deja-vu rituals of Doritos, stocking up on American magazines, other consumerist pleasures, waiting in the evil Miami security line trying to pick out what spoken Spanish came from which country, unconsciously sneering at ruddy-faced screechy Floridians, and boom, another live lived, and other lived died and there I was back in Argentina.

Arriving in Buenos Aires from Honduras is some serious culture shock. Honduras, for example, has maybe one building over 4 stories in the whole country. Driving through the endless urban jungle of Buenos Aires, its buildings, cafes, and people and then staying in the fashionable neighborhood of Reccoleta with its face-lifted, Gucci-toting chetos – I was a world apart. I was guiltily excited for it, after all Buenos Aires is like a second home to me, and I was looking forward to being around cool young people with their cool clothes doing cool things, and jazz scenes, and streetside café-con-leche sipping afternoons, the mullets, and other vanities of the comparatively “developed world.” (Did he say mullets?). I did eventually come to enjoy these things (they are here in Montevideo too), but my first impulse was a sort of unavoidable repulsion. Being in the Mosquetia just weeks before, I couldn’t help but being weirded out by the excess of luxury, even hot-water showers seemed unnecessary to me, the obsessive self-consciousness of porteños.

Yeah, I got over it. That’s the good and the bad about people – we adapt like you would never think you could. As easy as I fell into comfort with third-world material reality, I fell into old excesses. That’s just the way it is. The secret is to see if one can not forget what it felt like to be part of another past reality.

Back in old Buenos Aires, I delighted in remembering the streets I once knew so well, complained about the hike in taxi fares, marveled at the new skyscraper projects undertaken. Ate gnocchi. Though in some way I realized that Buenos Aires belonged in another time, and I felt a strange emptiness too a city I once thrived in. Been there, done that, I suppose. My family had come to visit for Christmas, and it was great to have the comforts of home for a week. Then Lynas came down for a week of bike journeying through southern dilapidated neighborhoods unexplored, live music, and hanging out with the incredibly cool Jimenez clan (Lynas’ relatives in BA). I stayed in an unmarked hostel owned by an old friend, and marveled at the joys and vagaries of constant Internet access.

Among the extraordinary that happened in these weeks:

Firstly, when hiking with my family on a glacier in Patagonia, I foolishly did not wear sunscreen. Glaciers reflect sun, in your face, strongly. It burns you. It burnt me, second-degree blisters all over my face that hardened into lizardy scales. I looked like a monster, besides being in incredible pain, but got the unique experience to seeing how people treat you differently when you have a grotesque skin condition. Then, in incredible bad luck, I had a very geriatric accident – I fell in the shower, hard, and split open my head. In the moments of adrenaline, I leapt out of the shower, spurting blood all over the place in great quantities, and managed unlock the door before I lost too much… the incredible luck is that I was 10 feet away from my mom and her boyfriend Noel, two emergency physicians, who quickly and calmly wrapped me up and brought me to the hospital to get stitched up. Eight stitches in the head, thank you. The incredibly irony of this is that the one time I seriously hurt myself, I’m not gallivanting in drug-smugglish regions of the Honduran jungle, but in a luxury Buenos Aires apartment 10 feet away from my family.

A week later, I was waiting outside of Lynas’ apartment on my bicycle at, lets, say 2am (Argentine early evening), and in my boredom, making music with the bicycle bell in what seemed to me, interesting polyrythms, but I imagine to anyone else, the most annoying thing a person could do, at 2am. All of a sudden, a bucket of water is poured on me from a balcony above. No “Quiet down you rapscallion”, no “Va fa culo”, or “Callate hijo de puta, concha de tu madre”. Nope. An annoyed neighbor handled the situation with a well-aimed bucket of water. I couldn’t be mad, it was too hilarious.

In another episode, me and Lynas were at a country-house of his relatives in the outskirts of the city, on our way home in an ancient car, when something happened that was, as Lynas put it, very reminiscent of 28 Days Later. Going over a muddy road, we get stuck. We’re really stuck, and we can’t push the car out of the trench. Meanwhile its getting dark, and on the periphery of our vision, zombie-like types from the nearby shanties seem to be congregating. We rush to find dry grasses to put under the tires and propel us out. It works, I like to think, in the nick of time. Don’t fuck with zombies.

Then there was New Years, with the reveling Peruvians of Abasto lighting off absurd quantities of fireworks in the street. The presence of firework stores in the middle of a city larger than New York is just great. Petition anyone?

Then there was tango, that old obsession, the beauty and darkness of the milonga and the crash of the bandoneon and the sexy slinkiness of tangueras and the heartbreaking bittersweet melancholy of it all.

And then there was Uruguay – Lynas helped me transfer my absurd quantity of luggage to Montevideo, and then we skipped to distant Punta Del Diablo, a windswept and quiet surfer town, where my former host-cousin was renting a beach house with his friends. We had fun. Fin.

And after weeks of this fun nonsense, I’m here in my third country, then 5 months through with my journey, and zipping around like busy ethnomusicologist again, now in a much different sort of place. Updates on all this to come.